Travel etiquette: Can you and should you bring food and drinks onto an aeroplane?

Jun 21, 2020

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We all know that aeroplane food isn’t exactly fine dining, especially if you’re travelling at the back of the plane. If you travel frequently or have dietary restrictions, chances are you’re going to want to start bringing your own food with you. I mean, how many times can you decide between chicken and pasta? It gets old pretty quickly.

Aeroplane food — not so much the foil-wrapped stuff — but rather the etiquette of bringing your own aromatic dishes on board is an issue very much on travellers’ minds all the time. Packing crisps remains uncontroversial, but what about pizza? Loaded nachos? Curried lamb with fish sauce? Is it safe to bring hot liquids onboard to hold during boarding and takeoff?

Social distancing has forced to airlines to restrict food and drinks services, and many airlines around the world have warned that there will be minimal food service on long-haul flights for the time being, with some short flights featuring no service at all. This means if you want to eat you on board, in some cases, you will need to bring your own food onto the plane with you.

So what are you allowed to bring and what should you avoid bringing, even if allowed?

Read more: The 6 best and worst inflight meals I ate last year

(Photo by Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images)

First, some ground rules

We’ll get to “should you,” but let’s start with “can you.” Because before you ever make it to the terminal’s food court, there’s security to contend with. The U.K. has strict liquids restrictions, which apply to food and drinks you may be thinking of taking on board. Gatwick Airport has published the following advice:

“You can carry cakes, fruit, vegetables, sandwiches and all solid foods in your hand baggage. However, foods in sauces or with a high liquid content (such as sauces, pastes, soups and stews) cannot come through security. The size of container must not exceed 100ml, regardless of the amount contained inside. Please note that jams, honey and other preserves are also subject to these restrictions.

Drinks are allowed in your hold luggage. You’re welcome to take drinks in cans, bottles, plastic containers and cartons, but these can’t be over 100ml. They also need to be placed in the same bag as your other liquids. Remember, once through security you can buy drinks in the departure area to take on to the plane. Drinks that are open or that you are consuming prior to the Security checkpoint cannot be carried through and must be fully consumed or discarded. 

All baby food and liquid are allowed to be carried in your hold luggage with no restrictions. If your child is two or under you are allowed to carry some items in your hand baggage that are an exception to our usual hand baggage rules. These include:

You can carry as much baby milk and sterilised water as is needed for your journey and they can be over 100ml. These will be subject to additional screening by security. Any milk that is not specifically designed for the child or water that has not been sterilised cannot be allowed through security and will be disposed of. There are water fountains and restaurants/food places where you can get these in the departure lounge after you have been through security. Expressed breast milk can be taken in unlimited quantities, as long as it’s in individual containers that are no larger than two litres per container. The milk cannot be frozen, but cooling gel packs or ice packs can be used to keep it cool. You can carry expressed breast milk even if your child isn’t flying with you.

Baby food in liquid, gel or paste form – you can also carry as much of these as is required for your trip and they can also be over 100ml. They will be subject to additional screening. If your baby has a medical condition or dietary requirement which means they need other liquid forms on your journey which are over 100ml you must bring a doctors letter or prescription to authenticate this if you are carrying them in your hand baggage.”

As for airlines’ own rules, British Airways says you can bring whatever food and drinks onboard that you wish, provided they comply with airports’ liquids restrictions. While you can bring duty-free alcohol such as wine or spirits that you purchased airside at the airport on board the plane, it is strictly forbidden on all airlines to drink your own alcohol on board. Don’t even consider it.

EasyJet states you can bring hot beverages on board, such as a tea or coffee purchased at the airport, provided it has a fitting lid.

So, now that you know what you can and cannot bring onboard, what is right and wrong when thinking about your fellow passengers?

What the experts say

Maralee McKee, the Manners Mentor, lays down the law on her site: “Don’t bring meals onto the plane”.

While she concedes that “crackers, granola bars and similar items are fine”, she draws the line at heartier, stinkier items like “a double cheeseburger or a salad with blue cheese”.

Jacqueline Whitmore wrote a book on etiquette and also previously worked as a cabin crew for a major carrier, so she knows a thing or two on this subject.

“Anything with heavy garlic, onion or fishy aroma should be avoided”, she told TPG, though it’s not just unappetising smells that can get you into trouble — she remembers a passenger once carrying a pizza on board, and before long everyone in the vicinity was reaching for a slice.

To really mind your mealtime manners, Whitmore advises disarming other passengers proactively to avoid a culinary confrontation.

“I always ask permission before opening up something that I think might have a smell. And sometimes, just to be kind, I even offer to share if I have something I think my seatmates might like”, she added.

Solid advice. When it comes to food (or anything, really), give your inflight neighbours the chance to be gracious rather than ticked off.

Read more: BA enhances temporary in-flight catering, brings back free snacks in short-haul economy

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)

What frequent flyers say

In an often-cited 2015 survey, 48% of respondents said it would be rude to consume odorous food on a plane, so public opinion is split right down the middle on this one. We thought a few very frequent flyers could help tip the balance.

Christina Flounders, an adjudicator from Philadelphia who completes 40 round-trip flights yearly, told TPG that she used to fret over this, at first opting for “low-smell items like turkey sandwiches or pretzels”. But after several “crazy years in the air,” she changed her tune.

“Travelling for work is hard enough as it is. This is my job, and if I need to eat on a plane, I am going to eat what I want. If you don’t like listening to someone chew, put your headphones in, if you don’t like watching someone devour their meal, take a nap, if you don’t like the smell of someone’s food, remember that most of the people around you on a plane are actively passing gas, and be grateful that someone brought on a nice, fragrant dish to cover up that smell”.

In the other corner is Cate Sturgess, a New York-based senior visuals editor at Condé Nast who flies monthly for work and draws a strict boundary.

“I think bringing on any food that has a smell (particularly something fried) is really obnoxious”, Sturgess said. “She does admit that doing so shouldn’t be banned, though, “given the indignities of flying coach”.

And Nick Chételat, a Swiss-Australian who works for an airline and flies more than 125,000 miles per year, said there is a happy medium.

“It’s a great idea to be prepared for a long flight with limited food offerings, but passengers who bring food onboard should be respectful enough not to discomfort other passengers in this confined space”, he said.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
(Photo  by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Allergy warning

Foul-smelling fare aside, there’s also the issue of proper protocol for food allergens. How safe is flying for the millions of people with food allergies? And for unafflicted passengers, is it rude to bring something like peanuts onboard?

Firstly, there are some simple precautions food-allergic passengers can and should take. Spokin, an app for people with food allergies, recommends alerting the airline in advance, packing any necessary medication like an EpiPen with all the proper documentation and flying out first thing in the morning, for better chances of a cleaner aircraft.

And some airlines are, of course, more accommodating than others.

Emirates, for example, warns that “nut-free special meals are not available” and that nut residue from other passengers can contaminate everything on board, from the seats to the air conditioning system.

But really, there’s no need to panic if you’re travelling with food allergies, as Hugh Windom, an immunologist at the University of South Florida told TPG.

“You really have to eat a food to have a food allergy reaction”, he said. “If you have a peanut allergy, you absolutely can fly and do it safely”.

Bottom line

Ultimately, this one’s a no-brainer: just be considerate of your fellow passengers.

After all, it’s your right to bring and eat whatever you wish aboard an aircraft — provided it complies with the U.K. aviation rules listed above. And for some travellers, bringing their own food isn’t just something they do to kill time on a long flight — it may be a necessity. There are passengers, for example, with dietary restrictions, allergies and medical conditions.

But perhaps certain particularly pungent snacks just aren’t appropriate if we want to keep those skies friendly. Seek out more mild alternatives to your favourite smelly snack and, as always with air travel, try to be on your best behaviour. Just maybe, everyone else will follow suit.

Additional reporting by Ben Smithson.

Featured photo by Yevgen Romanenko/Getty Images

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